Politics & Government

SC Dems want to end gerrymandering. Obama AG Eric Holder is here to back them up

Columbia Democrats say efforts to end gerrymandering and chip away at Republican control of redistricting needs to be an issue front and center in the 2020 election, including in South Carolina’s upcoming first-in-the-South presidential primary.

The S.C. Democratic Party held a panel discussion Thursday in Columbia with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and local Democratic leaders on gerrymandering and redistricting.

“We need to make sure come 2021, when we redistrict, that’s done in a fair way,” Holder said. “Let’s make this a battle of ideas. Let’s make this a battle of philosophies ... of policies.”

Holder, who served as attorney general for six years under former President Barack Obama, serves as chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The group is focused on ending gerrymandering so that politicians can no longer pick their voters — packing it with as many white voters as possible, who account for more than 90 percent of Republican votes in the state, or black voters, who comprise about 60 percent of S.C. Democratic votes.

The result has led to partisan gridlock and created an uneven playing field where certain voters’ voices are diminished, Holder said, making it harder for Democrats to pass gun control and immigration reform measures and expand Medicaid in South Carolina to ensure greater access to health care for everyone.

“We create these safe districts for Republicans — and let’s be fair, we create them for Democrats as well — and people then only have to worry about a primary,” he said. “That means if you are in a safe seat, you have to move further and further to the right and further and further to the left (to win). And the notion of compromise is seen as a weakness.”

Holder was joined by three state legislators from Richland County — Sen. Mia McLeod, Sen. John Scott and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford — and former SCDP chairman Jamie Harrison, who is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican, in 2020.

The panelists argued Republicans in South Carolina’s GOP-controlled state Legislature have drawn districts at all levels of government to give themselves an unfair advantage that hurts the voting power of South Carolinians, particularly African Americans.

Democrats, though, have been just as complicit in South Carolina’s decades-long gerrymandering, drawing lines that favor incumbents and are racially polarized, said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland. The former S.C. Democratic Party chairman litigated the state’s district lines in the 1990s and after the 2010 Census redistricting.

According to a 2018 Winthrop Poll, two-thirds of South Carolinians say they want an independent body to draw voting districts for U.S. House, and S.C. House and state Senate seats.

Holder also weighed in on efforts to block the addition a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The Trump administration insists it wants the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but has yet to prosecute a single case under the federal law, Holder said.

He also pointed to recently released documents belonging to a deceased GOP redistricting strategist, arguing they show the administration was driven to add the question as a pretext to give Republicans and non-Hispanic white people a political advantage when new voting maps are drawn after the 2020 census.

The administration’s claim of executive privilege to refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena for census-related documents also shows how disingenuous the administration is being, Holder said.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.